August 20 2008

Keep the Option of Single-Sex Education

Allison Kasic

Washington - As the school year approaches and students debate whether to get Jonas Brothers or Hannah Montana folders and pencils, parents have more substantive decisions to make involving the educational prospects of their children.

Sadly, if the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets its way, parents in Breckinridge, Ky., will have one less choice since they will no longer be able to voluntarily enroll their children in single-sex education programs.

In May, the ACLU of Kentucky filed suit in federal court, arguing that Breckinridge County Middle School's practice of offering single-sex classrooms is illegal and discriminatory.

Even though no child is required to attend a single-sex class, the suit contends that the practice still violates a slew of state and federal laws, including Title IX and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

The Breckinridge County School District began offering single-sex classrooms in 2003, after the Department of Education announced plans to loosen federal restrictions on single-sex education.

In 2006, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings followed through on the Department's promise and eased Title IX regulations, allowing schools to offer single-sex classrooms, schools, and extracurricular activities, as long as such programs are completely voluntary options.

Many parents were thrilled by the newly relaxed rules, which opened up more opportunities for single-sex education. Single-sex options have, of course, always been available at private schools, but the 2006 ruling opened up more options for all parents, not just those who could afford to opt out of the public education system.

Proponents of single-sex education point to a growing body of research that indicates that boys and girls tend to have different learning styles. Different teaching techniques and activities, they say, should be used to get the best out of boys and girls in the classroom. Boys, for example, on average, prefer hands-on classroom activities, while girls often thrive in small group exercises.

Some parents are also concerned that members of the opposite sex distract their children, inhibiting educational performance.

Far from reinforcing gender stereotypes, single-sex education in many ways enables students to more easily break away from gender stereotypes. For example, research suggests that girls are more likely to take courses such as computer science and physics in a single-sex environment than in a coed environment. Likewise, boys are more likely to study areas such as art and music in a single-sex environment than in a coed environment.

Students are less concerned with impressing the opposite sex and are free to explore educational interests that they might otherwise ignore in a standard, coed environment.

Critics of single-sex education argue that socializing, especially between genders, should be an integral part of education.

One point in the debate is clear: Single-sex education isn't for everyone - thus the requirement that such programs remain voluntary.

Yet given that single-sex education is probably better for some kids and not for others, it seems that parents, and not the ACLU, are best positioned to make the decision about what learning environment would be best for their children.

Indeed, on several measures, support for greater choice in education is growing. Parents, in large number, are tired of the same one-size-fits-all public education system. They crave more flexibility and control over where, and under what circumstances, their children are taught.

If the recent debate in Kentucky teaches us anything, it isn't that single-sex education is good or bad, but that we desperately need more choice in education.

Under a system of increased school choice, whether it is through vouchers, charter schools, or tax credits, parents need not agree on whether single-sex education is right for everybody.

In a true education marketplace, there would be a vast diversity of schooling options, each catering to different learning styles, teaching techniques, and student body makeup. For once, parents would have real options regarding the education of their children, which hopefully we can all agree would be a good thing.

Allison Kasic is director of the R. Gaull Silberman Center for Collegiate Studies at the Independent Women's Forum.

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